One of the most well-known "collaborations" between Argentinian writer-director Armando Bo and his actress wife Isabel Sarli, Carne (which is not available on DVD) was recently offered to American audiences at Walter Reade Theatre's mini-retrospective of Sarli's work. Not knowing what to expect, other than an Argentinian Bridget Bardot, I went, finding myself in the rather awkward position of watching a soft-core porno at an art-house filled with stylish hipsters and film nerds eating popcorn. Forty years ago, this film played at theatres near 42nd street, where lonely men in the audience kept their hands busy with something else.
The film is disturbingly biographical, if you follow its extended metaphor. Sarli, 1955 Miss Argentina, was "discovered" by Armando Bo, and recorded her first nude scenes with him unwittingly. Recounting the story, she describes the way she told him she would not do a nude scene, and he promised she could wear a nude-colored swimsuit. "Later, when we were shooting the film in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, needless to say, there was no swimsuit. I made them keep the camera very far away. I didn’t know anything at the time. I wasn’t even aware of zoom lenses and things like that. When I watched the film at the premiere, it was a terrible shock."
In Carne, Sarli plays Delicia, a meat plant worker who is raped in a tunnel by one of the men who works in the plant. She hides the fact from her lover (played by Bo), who seems to know that something is wrong, but spends too much time brooding to do anything about it. Soon, Delicia is raped again, by the same man (called Macho)—this time in a meat locker, on a cold, red, cow's carcass. This begins as an almost Hitchcockian suspense scene, in which she sees Macho's eyes between the dressed carcasses hanging from hooks, then his feet down below, and begins to hurry away (in her tight dress and high heels), as he chases her between the swinging rows of meat. But, it quickly devolves into a cheap and rather disgusting soft-core rape scene, which today's audience is supposed to gleefully watch in the name of "camp."
But there's actually very little artistic delight to be had in this "exploitation" film, because it is so truly exploitative. This isn't art or games or an empowered woman playing with her sexuality on-screen. As the plot goes on, Macho kidnaps Delicia and takes her, in a meat truck, to the outskirts of town, where he has collected a handful of his friends and coworkers for a game of cards, a few drinks, and—for a price—a turn at Delicia. She is locked in the truck with a small cot. Macho is the first to enter, and he rapes her a third time. When the next man comes in, she is shocked, still unaware of her fate. She tries to reason with him, but is unsuccessful. Four more men follow. Only once is she given a break—in the strangest of scenes—by a man who admits in a high-pitched voice that he is a homosexual, with a crush on Macho.
All the while, Delicia's behavior is very strange. She sits simpering on the bed, begging not to be taken, while tossing her hair and caressing her (extremely large) breasts. After she is let go, she runs home and takes a long shower; Bo's camera follows her here, where she again writhes and caresses herself as she flashes back to the ordeal she has just experienced.
At the film's conclusion, Delicia's lover finally realizes what has been happening, and finds Macho, challenging him to a fist-fight. He gives the wrong-doer a good beating, kicking him into a muddy creek. This is the extent of his punishment. Delicia and her lover go off to live, we assume, happily ever after.
Sarli and Bo made more than 25 films "together," and though this is the only one I've seen, both from it and from what I've read, I gather that he was no better than a pimp. Sarli describes Bo's brilliant ability to write a script in a few hours, but what little script Carne has was quite clearly written by a hack—and I refuse to blame the translated subtitles. What Bo did—take a beautiful naive, sweet girl, and put her naked body onscreen for the delectation of strange men, against her will, to line his own pockets—is what Macho did. No wonder it was so easy for Bo to write this script; it's a confession. What breaks my heart is that Sarli loved Bo nevertheless, sharing her body with the public against her will because he told her she had to. She had offers to work with major studios, to take control of her own career, but she refused, devoted to her abuser to his death.
It may be trendy to watch dated porn as art, but Sarli is deeply unsettling onscreen. Her discomfort and ambivalence are more palpable than the "sexual frisson" for which she is famous. The notion that I could watch a woman willingly suffer this kind of abuse and giggle, or say "hmm," stroking my chin, is ludicrous. Equally distressing was the presentation of the series, by its female curators, who did not for a moment problematize Sarli and Bo's working relationship, instead giggling about their memories of watching their first Sarli films illicitly, on Argentinian cable television. If films like this are going to be presented to a thinking audience, they had better be contextualized.